The Evolution of Office Design

Morgan Lovell

The humble office has evolved hugely over the past decade. But what about the past century? What are the origins of modern office design, and what have today’s offices evolved from? At Morgan Lovell, we know offices, and as such have compiled all of our research to present some insights into just how far office design has come.



Offices have existed in some way, shape or form throughout history as a means of a person, or body of people, to conduct official administrative business. It is based on the Roman Latin officium, a term loosely meaning “bureau,” or a human staff or formal position. In ancient Rome, it was not so much a specific place or building, but the people within it; hence the phrase, “The Office of the Prime Minister,” for example. The Romans had a unique knack for using only time-tested building techniques that inspired organisation and order for dealing with central bureaucratic processes, as exemplified in the almighty and archaic Pantheon in Rome’s modern business district.

The almighty and archaic Pantheon in Rome’s modern business district.


It’s difficult to fathom the idea that gigantic, multi-functional organisations did not exist in quite the same size and relative complexity as Roman bureaucratic government until the 18th century. Organisations such as the Royal Navy and East India Company were established to further Britain’s interests overseas – and to manage their incredibly varied tasks and organisation, a central base of operations needed to be built. East India House was built in 1729 on Leadenhall Street as the HQ from which the East India Company administered its Indian interests and required thousands of employees to process the necessary paperwork.

The East India House

The Old Admiralty (Ripley Building), built in 1726, was the first purpose-built office building; while many smaller offices for the Royal Navy were consolidated into Somerset House as the first purpose-built office block, throughout the 1770s.

The Old Admiralty Office

Like the Roman politicians, The East India Company understood the necessity for centralised administration, and the efficiency this brought to what was essentially a process of making and distributing vast amounts of money. In this way, many non-political organisations followed suit – such as John Soane’s Four Percent Office in the Bank of England, erected in 1793.

John Soane’s Four Percent Office in the Bank of England, erected in 1793.


The first “skyscraper” in the UK, by definition, is argued to be the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool. Completed in 1864 by architect Peter Ellis, the “skyscraper” only measures five storeys high, and is the first building in history to feature a metal-framed glass curtain wall. While not a “skyscraper” by today’s standards, Ellis’ famous architectural achievement employed an iron inner structure, removing the need for walls to support it.

This allowed for the iconic glass curtain wall to flood all floors of the building with natural light during the day, and for more people to use a wider surface area of the office space with minimal need for artificial light. As the name suggests, Oriel Chambers has been almost exclusively utilised by legal professionals since 1965.

At only five storeys high, the Oriel Chambers in Liverpool was the UK’s first skyscraper.


While the building was initially highly controversial, garnering negative reviews from contemporary media; it was also seen to influence many contemporaries – in particular, John Welborn Root, who went from a teenager living in Liverpool to becoming a significant architect at the Chicago School of Architecture. Importantly, this suggests that there was a considerable transplantation of Peter Ellis’ ideas across the Atlantic, to America – therefore influencing many of Burnham and Root’s pioneering skyscraper builds in the 1880s.

Oriel Chambers has been described by notable history of architecture scholars as “remarkable,” even “unbelievable” in its time. It may be argued that it’s the transplanting of Ellis’ architectural prowess across to America that gave rise to the iconic 20th century skyscrapers of Chicago and New York – beginning with the USA’s first ever glass curtain-walled example: Kansas City, Missouri’s Boley Building, finished in 1909. Ellis’ iconic architectural masterpiece arguably led to the establishment of skyscraper office buildings worldwide: allowing not only for more vast, naturally-lit office floors, but also more of them on finite land.

In the present day, Oriel Chambers has been brought up to date. It continues to function as a lively workspace, but the modernised touches complement the historic character of the office perfectly. You’ll find no zany fluorescent materials here. Hardwoods and neutral whites adorn the open, airy spaces that are still set off by the abundance of natural light afforded by the grandiose glass curtain wall to this day.

The Oriel Chambers have been updated with modern interiors that complement the building’s classic architectural character. Many companies occupy the building today.

The Oriel Chambers have been updated with modern interiors that complement the building’s classic architectural character. Many companies occupy the building today.


Many factors gave rise to the modern offices of the early 20th century. The links between finance and work efficiency. The invention of electric lighting, allowing employees to work without expensive gas lighting or many windows. Typewriters and calculation machines, allowing for the processing of vast amounts of information. Communications devices like the telegraph and telephone, allowing office buildings to be situated away from factories, homes, and even countries of operation, yet control still be maintained over them.

Expensive land prices, coupled with the inventions of the lift and of steel frame construction, allowing for buildings higher than 10 storeys. This gave rise, quite literally, to the skyscrapers of 20th century Chicago and New York – including The Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri.

This led ultimately to the rapid evolution of office design in the early 20th century. Larger workforces could be moved into spacious, open plan offices, working in natural light or under electric lighting. Soundproofing and partitioning provided for the isolation of employees from excessive noise, heat, or pollution. The advent of skyscrapers allowed workforces more than ten times’ the size to work on the same square feet of increasingly expensive land. The Industrial Revolution had completely modernised manual labour and production. Office design would now begin to modernise white collar, professional labour in a similar fashion.

The office layout floor plan of the Wainwright Building in St. Louis, Missouri..


Frank Lloyd Wright is credited with developing the first commercially-viable Taylorist office, for a mail order soap company in 1904. The Larkin Administrative Building contained 1,800 workers, processing 5,000 orders per day working in a central open space at the centre of the building. To limit the build-up of passing train pollution, an innovative, yet primitive, air conditioning system was fitted; and the building was hermetically sealed. The building sported salutary inscriptions dotted around, suggesting that the company resembled a family, or a well-oiled machine, dedicated to the “sacrament of work.” The assembly-line nature of mail order processing, coupled with the few glimpses of sky the employees received throughout the day, reinforced this vision. Wright’s attention to detail extended to the design of the first ever “system” furniture, desks sporting built-in cabinets and dividers to keep employees focused and worktops tidy.

This office plan was very much – like the strip system, the Maxim machine gun, and the production line – a product of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 20th Century. Developed by the father of “scientific management,” Frederick Winslow Taylor, the Taylorist office by design sought to vastly improve efficiency in businesses that didn’t necessarily rely on manufacturing or manual labour. Taylor, a proponent of the Efficiency Movement, hoped to imitate the factory “assembly line” of the time by delegating simple, repetitive manual tasks to clerks, executives and associates of law and accounting firms, insurance companies, and government agencies in order to create a constant workflow.

The other gains made from the Taylorist office plan included fitting more desks, and therefore more workers, into a room; as well as allowing for managers and supervisors to scrutinize workers easier. Naturally, senior management still had their own offices.

The Larkin Administrative Building contained 1,800 workers, processing 5,000 orders per day working in a central open space at the centre of the building


Echoing the skyscrapers of Chicago and New York, many European countries saw a rise in “miniature skyscrapers,” as well as “miniature Taylorist offices,” throughout the first 30 years of the 20th Century.

Architects like Mies van der Rohe designed concrete office buildings with “continuous ribbon windows,” above head height, to let in light but not allow employees to see out from their desks. These designs lacked financial backing at the time, due to the 1929 Wall Street Crash-induced depression and prevalent wartime economies, but there are many examples of unbuilt ideas.

Le Corbusier’s glass curtain wall project for government offices in Brazil of 1936 provided such an example; of “the literal and organisational transparency of a modern democratic state.” These designs still utilised the now-entrenched Taylorist principles, but due to wider emphasis placed on natural light sources, the Taylorist open plan had to be incorporated on a smaller scale. A built example of this is van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse.

Mies van der Rohe’s Friedrichstrasse Skyscraper, erected in Berlin in 1921. There are clear examples of Taylorist-style wide, open plan office spaces. However, these are facing outwards to allow for ample natural light from glass ribbon windows.

Le Corbusier’s Glass Curtain Wall Project, Brazil 1936. The office design is Taylorist, but on a smaller scale. It is still spacious and open plan, however, the vast glass windows allow for ample natural light to flood the workspace.


The 1930s gave rise to more aesthetically pleasing offices, as well as spaces designed for efficiency and speed, rather than organisation and manufacture. The “Roaring 20s” had come to an abrupt halt with the Wall Street Crash in 1929, and major corporate companies had become interested in two main things: offices that expressed their corporate image; and getting work done cheaper, in less time.

This was not a major departure from Taylorist principles, with a clear, rigid hierarchy dictating work orders across a separated “workers’ floor.” However, the streamlined office was developed in tandem with architecturally Modernist buildings: structures in the European style based on “the coming together of a society.” A more modern, rich, “warm” space for workers was achieved; using radiant, streamlined materials to compensate for the lack of interaction with the outside world.

One of the prime examples of this kind of office was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building, built in Racine, Wisconsin, finished in 1939. The 250 “rank and file” sales workers were contained in a single great room, isolated from both outside industrial smoke and noise, as well as managers, company executives and loud machinery in separate rooms. The main differences between the new Johnson Wax Building and its Taylorist predecessors were the presence of bright lights, clinical, white, warm spaces, and cork ceilings to “absorb the sound rising from the heated rubber floor, and blend it into a placid hum.”

If anything, it could be argued that the Streamlined Office was a work of Taylorist design, but improved and updated by the extravagance of the Roaring 20s and the invention of new, premium materials. In these areas, the Johnson Wax Building is historically seen as a success – as workers spent more of their time, both recreational and working, inside the building as a direct result of its layout and function.

Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building, built in Racine, Wisconsin, and finished in 1939.


The dawn of the 1950's brought with it further advances into building with modern materials like steel and glass. The smart, clinical architecture of the international modern movement was adopted as the new image of corporate business. With the widespread use of advanced air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting, these new high-rise buildings had very little need for natural light or ventilation through opening windows. With these technological developments, the 1950s saw the corporate office become completely autonomous from the outside world – as well as allowing for wider, more open plan floors where workers could be placed virtually anywhere. This formula enjoyed worldwide influence.

These architectural developments led to such iconic examples as The Lever House. Finished in 1952 in New York City, the headquarters of British soap company, Lever Brothers, was the first skyscraper in New York to borrow the “glass curtain wall” from Peter Ellis’ Oriel Chambers. The Lever House’s modernist image of efficiency and standardisation started a trend in the 1950s and 60s that saw a number of “glass boxes” spring up across the New York skyline, expressing the city’s commercial and cultural dominance. These skyscrapers allowed for even more natural light to flood the wide office floors, much like Le Corbusier’s Glass Curtain Wall had intended to do 20 years beforehand.

Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, the firm behind The Lever House, went on to design The Chase Manhattan Bank, finished in 1961. The architects, Gordon Bunshaft and Natalie de Blois, followed the tried-and-tested hierarchical nature of corporate business, placing administrative and clerical staff in typical open pools, managers in partitioned offices, and executives in the luxury of the sixtieth floor. Up until the mid-20th century, offices of this open style had arguably been inventions, revisions, and reinventions of an economic nature – however, this was about to change.

Finished in 1952 in New York City, The Lever House was the headquarters of British soap company, Lever Brothers.

Floor Plan of the Chase Manhattan Bank, finished in 1961.


Bürolandschaft translates literally to “office landscape,” and may be seen to be the first major mold-breaking office space reinvention since Taylorism nearly 50 years before. By pioneering a new form of open office, Eberhard and Wolfgang Schnelle, of the Quickborner Team in Hamburg, sought to “break the rigid and ineffective structures of large bureaucratic organizations open, and design the spatial organization of the office in line with the needs of workers.”

Unlike the strict, regimented banality of the Taylorist, Open Plan, or Streamlined office spaces that had gone before, Office Landscape consisted of free and open plans of furniture scattered in large, loosely and unstructurally-divided spaces with different environments. These varied environments were divided less rigidly, with creative use of partitions and plants, the natures of them often dictated by the type, and function of workers inhabiting them. For example, workers in creative fields (like advertising, or media) could be grouped loosely where they could easily interact more frequently, whereas more bureaucratic, corporate management staff were situated in more regimented, subdivided areas.

It was no surprise that Bürolandschaft emanated from Northern Europe in the near-immediate wake of World War II. Parallel to the Cold War – a great, “silent” war more of ideologies than armies – the “office landscape” engendered an egalitarian management approach. Based on progressive, Socio-Democratic principles, the system recognised and allowed for the wide diversity of different office work – and in doing so, encouraged staff of multiple levels to sit and work together, in an effort to improve collaboration and communication in the office environment.

Though Bürolandschaft enjoyed a brief period of popularity in Europe, as well as being established within some British offices by the end of the 1960s, the sheer nature of its open, scattered, and charmingly random layout did not lend itself well to worldwide adoption. “Action Furniture” was developed to adapt the desk to this new office environment, mitigate noise, and address concerns of privacy – but this ultimately ended up undermining the idea behind Bürolandschaft.

Office Landscape, Buch und Ton, Bertelsmann, Gütersloh, 1961.


Out of the Socio-Democratic principles of Bürolandschaft rose Herman Miller’s Action Office, a series of desks, workspaces, and other modular furniture designed to allow freedom of movement, and flexibility to work in a position suitable for the work being done. Action Office was developed and marketed under the supervision of George Nelson and Robert Propst, who were among the first designers to argue that office work was mental work and that mental effort was tied to a suitable working environment.

Action Office may be seen as the first prominent example of an office space system built on the post-war European Modernist principles responsible for such marvels as Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, or Marcel Breuer’s Whitney Museum of American Art.

The influx of women in the workplace after World War II also led to changing office dynamics. In 1968, The Observer ran a feature entitled, “Would you let your daughter work in an open-plan office?” Good secretarial skills were at a premium in the 1960s, which allowed the best of the best secretaries to demand a “modesty board” – a plywood section that covered the entire front of a desk, and the secretary’s legs. Of course, allowing women to wear trousers in the office, as a much simpler solution, was relatively unheard of in British offices until the mid-1970s.

Action Office I was initially designed with small offices in mind, where staff worked in the same room, on the same furniture. This brought about its own issues. Because the furniture was bespoke and made of high quality materials, it was prohibitively expensive for cost-conscious office managers, as well as difficult to assemble. This, combined with the need to replace the furniture with changing office needs, made it financially and practically unsuitable for larger, corporate offices.


Following a slow uptake and meagre sales of Action Office I, Propst and Nelson went back to the drawing board, beginning work on Action Office II. What resulted was a concept of an office as flexible as Action Office I, in that it was capable of frequent modification to suit the changing needs of the employee, without the need to purchase expensive new furnishings.

The new system was designed to allow staff a degree of privacy, as well as the option to personalise their work environment without affecting their colleagues’ environments. Propst’s recognition of the link between employee productivity and their own, personalised workspace, led to a concept called the “back-up.” This was a three-sided vertical division, defining territory and affording privacy without completely cutting employees off from the outside world.

Does it sound familiar? It should: Action Office II, with its flexible, space-defining walls and multiple, interchangeable workstation furnishings would begin the process for establishing the horrendously regimented “Cubicle Farms” of the 1980s.

Action Office II in action

A taste of what was to come… the infamous Cubicle Farm of the 1980s.

By the late 1950s, the supremacy of the Modernist, functional city had come under criticism, and certain designers looked to more traditional patterns. Dutch architect Herman Herzberger developed a kind of structuralist architecture that gave rise to groundbreaking new office structures. Herzberger’s 1974 project, the Centraal Beheer insurance building in Apeldoorn, Holland, was designed to allow staff to “feel part of a working community without being lost in the crowd.” It was almost a building housing several smaller, individual buildings – a structural form designed to “differentiate between a structure with a long life cycle and infill with shorter life cycles.”

In this way, the Centraal Beheer was a deep, spatial conglomerate of concrete and bricks patterned on a tartan grid – almost labyrinthian in its design. Platforms separated by light wells enabled light to filter down into the centre of the plan. In similar strides to its Action Office and Bürolandschaft predecessors, the uniformity of these smaller, repetitive spaces allowed for small groups of 10 to occupy them at a time, collaborating in mechanically structured work environments.

Taking a leaf from Robert Propst’s book, occupying staff were encouraged to personalise and decorate their collective space. The company actively encouraged a more relaxed, accepting sense of the family to exist within the office; and as a result, many workers actually brought creature comforts, familiar furniture, and members of their family from home into work. However, though the structure was effective for smaller-scale collaboration, its labyrinthine architecture did not lend itself to providing larger public spaces for communication between larger groups. In addition to this, the Centraal Beheer building’s vast, intricate layout easily allowed staff to become lost inside.

Herzberger’s Centraal Beheer clearly demonstrates the changing attitudes towards skilled office workers.

Herzberger’s 1974 project, the Centraal Beheer insurance building.

Much like the Johnson Wax Building of the 1930s, the Structuralist Office layout demonstrates a real increasing status for office workers in Europe. The company’s decision to place the wellbeing and contentment of their workforce above both efficiency and economy set Herzberger’s office space architecture apart from both the archaic, industrial Taylorist principles; and the elements of the Action Office that would inevitably become the regimented “Cubicle Farms” of the 1980s. It is hardly surprising that the underlying fundamental elements of the Structuralist Office that promoted staff wellbeing, communication and collaboration have survived – and even been developed further – in modern offices. The monolithic glass boxes of Glaxo-Smith-Kline in Brentford and British Airways in Waterside are more up-to-date examples of this innovative office model.

The SAS HQ in Stockholm features a series of “streets” separating different working communities within the office environment.


The manifestation of the Action Office of the 1960s taken to its absolute dystopian limits, the infamous “Cubicle Farm” was born out of the reality that human resource departments, supervisors, senior managers, and directors were less interested in the well-being of their workers than they were in their profitability.

Robert Propst may have envisioned the Action Office as a means of freeing workers from the dull, mechanical nature of the Open Plan Taylorist office floor, but even he soon realised that:

“not all organisations are intelligent and progressive. Lots are run by crass people who can take the same kind of equipment and create hellholes. They make little bitty cubicles and stuff people in them. Barren, rat-hole places.”

The Cubicle Farm became so iconic throughout the 1980s that the concept itself began to form the basis for many satirical art forms – such as the 1999 cult film “Office Space”.


This overtly super-economical mindset, combined with the fast-paced nature of the decade, resulted in a rapid increase of middle management staff – too important for a desk in a Taylorist work floor, but too junior for a corner office. These workers needed to be accommodated with their own space – but as flexibly, and economically sound (read: cheaply), as possible. The sea of cubicles was born.

Douglas Ball, a designer for Haworth, one of Herman Miller’s rival furniture companies, developed one of Action Office II’s many knockoff designs. Initially excited, he emerged from the completed space utterly depressed. “I went to see the first installation of the system, a huge government project. The panels were all seventy inches tall, so unless you were six-foot-three you couldn’t look over the top.

It was awful – one of the worst installations I’d ever seen,” Ball said. “We thought it was extremely flexible in the plan view, but we had never considered the vertical elevation.” By then, it was too late to remedy the problem. In fact, to let in any light and air, he added, “you’d have to go in with a chainsaw and cut off the tops of the panels.” Ball, like so many of his contemporaries, had trapped people in giant fabric-wrapped walls, when he had meant, like Robert Propst some 20 years previous, to free them.

The Cubicle Farm is a lesson in history that further proves that any good idea can be corrupted by anyone with more interest in economy, or efficiency, than in human resources. It showed that vast, corporate companies had little interest in creating autonomous environments for staff. Instead, Action Office II and its many copies were used to cram as many people into as small a space, for as cheaply as possible, as quickly as possible.


One of, if not the biggest development of the 1990s was the increasing ease of internet access. This brought not only a wealth of funny pictures, Geocities websites and the beginnings of social networking, but it also had groundbreaking effects on office working – ones that could not be ignored.

Nearly one hundred years later, the world wide web brought with it the development of an office phenomenon first seen at the turn of the 20th century: widespread new technology, the internet, laptops and mobile phones could move offices, workers and work away from the typical office and their desk, and onto public transport, into homes and cafés. The recession of the early 1990s, combined with growing competition in increasingly globalised markets put a squeeze on many businesses, whose CEOs and Managing Directors could not ignore the cost savings of teleworking and outsourcing facilitated by advanced telecommunications.

Growing land prices and ground rents in built up areas saw more and more growing, multinational companies relocating out of city centres, to industrial parks and underused land accessible only by small train stations and motorways. This saw the rapid development of these industrial parks – or “non-places” – such as those around the M25, and outside smaller towns like Slough or Reading.


A highly radical example of these new “telecommuter” offices comes in the form of the British Telecom office in Stockley Park. Located on the M25 near Heathrow airport, the interior of the business park building resembled a layout more progressive than even the Citibank Headquarters of the same decade. Designed by DEGW in 1996, the wholly open plan layout proved even more open plan than the Taylorist office, as all workspaces were open with no separate offices.

This new, non-territorial plan divided 3,000 employees amongst 1,300 workspaces, reflecting British Telecom’s strong promotion of telecommuting amongst its staff. With the move to Stockley Park, employees were encouraged to work from home, or with clients, for up to 3 days a week – only seeing two days in the office. Combined with the relatively new phenomenon of hot-desking – where employees were encouraged to set up and use different desks each day – this allowed British Telecom to save space, sell off properties in inner city areas, utilise new communication technology to save money, and promote a more flexible working environment. All in all, these advances in office design sought to change the working culture of the organisation completely.

Though this new form of “completely open plan” office layout had positive intentions – saving costs, enabling better flexibility, and encouraging more collaboration, the early Virtual Office still had its drawbacks. In the actual office environment, the regularised, even tedious open plan has made it difficult for employees to identify or feel at home: even the dreaded cubicle was territorial, allowing for workers to customise their own “space.” Hot-desking meant employees were less grounded.

Hot Desking at ThoughtWorks

The British Telecom Office in Stockley Park


The intense shake-up of office design in the 1990s was also taking place in a great multitude of predominantly online “Internet Companies” riding the Dot Com Bubble. Great strides in the development of telecommunications technology – as seen at Stockley Park – led to the first advances in telecommuting and flexible working.

A great number of Dot Com Companies in the late 1990s embraced smaller, quirkier, more colourful offices that aligned with their progressive, exciting new image. From retail flops like and, to early digital media startups like Ritmoteca and; the very end of the 20th century played host to dozens of new, supposedly innovative companies opening their colourful, alternative doors – and closing them just as quickly.

The quirky, casual offices produced by the dot-com bubble of the late 1990s still retained elements of the Open Plan; only with zany, loud colour schemes and novel themes. This inspired the open office designs of today: “de-territorialised” plans where boundaries between people and spaces, as well as those between work and play, are blurred.


A stark contrast from the bland, greying cubicle labyrinths of the previous decade; the telecommunications technology boom at the end of the 20th century provided the first major example of how technological advancement could revolutionise working patterns. The advent of technology has led to less need for workers to be bound to their desks, resulting in the innovative agile working setups of some of the Dot Com companies that survived post-Y2K: leviathans such as Google. The search giant has always inspired a working culture of collaboration, level contribution, and sharing of opinions and ideas regardless of an employee’s role in the company; and Google’s Menlo Park, California office reflected a working style that was completely revolutionary at the turn of the 21st century.

Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin in their garage office in Menlo Park, California, in 1999.

Google's Dublin Office


The casual office has actually been a trend since the mid-1980s, pioneered by creative industry firms born out of the advent and rapid coming to prominence of the information age. From the now monolithic Silicon Valley companies like Apple, Intel, Microsoft and Tesla; through to the Dot Com giants like Yahoo!, Google and eBay; down to the smallest Digital Marketing startups – all of these companies have embraced more casual office styles, designed to encourage highly-personalised workspaces suited to long hours spent programming, analysing data, building links or designing graphics. The “dress code,” if there was one, of such an office became much more relaxed than the conventional “suits and ties” of the previous century – and the layouts had to reflect this.

ThoughtWorks casual office aspects permeate the office, rather than separating work from play and vice versa.

One such example of an inspirational, yet casual office is that of innovative IT firm, ThoughtWorks. The bold and bright back-of-house space features lots of alternative work settings, focused spaces and quiet rooms. Since all work and no play makes for unnecessary fatigue and reduced productivity, there are also social spaces, like the lunch café and games room; as well as dedicated art walls to inspire staff creativity. Long gone are the days of drab offices full of rows of desks and cubicles. The beginning of the 21st century sparked a significant change in office design…

The current trend of office space layouts reflects the often complex evolving structure of modern companies and the emerging work styles of specific company roles. Rising property prices and resultant rising office rents, particularly in capital cities, have led to a need for more efficient usage of space – and more informal, flexible, multi-purpose meeting spaces.

One of many Quiet Rooms at big data intelligence company, Splunk. This room has multiple uses: quiet concentration, informal meetings, or conference calls.


Further to this, the emergence of the Bürolandschaft-inspired casual office space, inspiring communication and collaboration amongst employees, is beginning to show significant flaws for many of its overly-sociable occupants. Miscellaneous noises, abrasive music and other distractions are among the worst complaints, as well as a lack of privacy.

The lack of a quiet, territorial space such as a personal office or dreaded cubicle also means a lack of the need to knock on a door or schedule a specific meeting time. This has seen many employees finding themselves interrupted by their colleagues, which in turn negatively impacts on their work.

However, because locking employees away in private offices, never to communicate or collaborate with their colleagues, leads to other issues, innovative compromises between the Open Plan Taylorist Office and the completely cut off private office have become more and more common. Previous attempts at this compromise resulted in the disorganised Virtual Office, exemplified within British Telecom’s Stockley Park in the mid-1990s; as well as the infamous 1980s Cubicle Farm.


“The idea behind the office here at Morgan Lovell is to create a variety of spaces that will enable people to work in a way they want to work.”

One of the main criticisms of the dated Open Plan office designs – be they Taylorist or Casual – is the “one-size-fits-all” mentality that all members of staff can work in significantly different ways, on completely different projects, in the same space. While this encourages collaboration and openness, by doing so it also creates unnecessary distractions and stress for those that need privacy, purpose-built specialist equipment, or just a quiet space to think.

The solution to this isn’t completely territorial offices or the dreary grey cubicles of yesteryear. Dynamic, activity-based working spaces to suit different working styles are key to moving away from Open Plan tedium. Contemporary, responsive spaces that remain open, but separate, allow for collaboration, inspiration, mobility, and the completion of specialist projects – without the worry of crowding or disruptions from one working style to another. Workers are presented with a range of logistically different workspaces to choose from to best suit their individual needs at the time – including their own desk, wide open meeting rooms with whiteboards, IT suites, or informal spaces with coffee and snacks.

Agile working environments are truly the future. Allowing staff to work effectively in different environments within the same space is key to both productivity and workplace wellbeing.


Instead, today’s offices have begun to incorporate spaces to accommodate a range of different working styles – all within the same space. AGMs, one-to-one reviews, team meetings or simply vast spaces that allow one person to spread papers and designs out and pace up and down alone for a bit are all needed in the most modern offices – and these need to be achieved within a strict space limit. Add to this the fact that nearly 14% of the current working population work from home, and the necessity of adaptable, flexible spaces becomes even more apparent. Fixed, formal meeting rooms aren’t used constantly, and can be a drain on finances, as well as working space.

This emerging shift towards adaptable workspaces to accommodate the most bizarre of ad-hoc working practices not only saves space and money, but also allows for employees to have the best of both worlds: collaboration and communication, and peace, quiet and privacy when they need it. Modern office spaces need to allow for a range of different numbers of people, from one-man phone booths, perfect for personal calls and personal work, to huddle rooms for small groups, loud rooms for informal, creative, collaborative work and quiet rooms for activities of a more reserved nature.

This desire for collaborative, yet adaptive workspace has permeated modern offices significantly through the introduction of “third spaces,” or “in-between spaces;” work areas with no rigid purpose; but the ability to adapt to multiple styles of working on different project types.


There have been various workplace laws passed throughout the past two centuries – since 1833, in fact – in order to better protect and promote the wellbeing of employees. Whether they’re in manual labour factories, on assembly lines, or in white-collar office roles, it has become apparent over the course of the office’s history that companies need to accommodate for the welfare, comfort, health, and happiness of the workers in their care. Not only are these wellbeing initiatives in line with legal precedents, such as the Health and Safety Executive, but many employers have found – unsurprisingly – distinct positive correlations between employees’ wellness and their work output.

Workplace wellbeing initiatives not only save money through boosting productivity and reducing absence from work, but they also make staff feel valued, and produce a far more effective, cohesive and motivated workforce than would exist otherwise. Because of this, many forward-thinking companies have taken the changes necessary to improve workplace wellbeing into account when designing and fitting out a new office space.

As outlined in Morgan Lovell’s Workplace Wellbeing Statistics, employees are experiencing a multitude of different problems that impact negatively on their wellbeing; including poor diet, lack of exercise, being overweight, and drinking too much. To combat these, companies are looking into different methods that can be incorporated into the workplace. Cafeterias that promote healthier meals and snacks, free fruit, Cycle to Work initiatives, gym membership, and offices that are low-stress and encourage movement are among the different elements being incorporated into office spaces to promote wellbeing. Alongside these different, subtle changes come varied, progressive office design elements, such as informal, “fun” rooms, formal collaboration spaces, quiet rooms, ergonomic specialist furniture, and access to the latest, most efficient technology.

There are many factors that influence workplace wellbeing. These can be incorporated into office design and build in a variety of ways.


In a world that’s becoming more and more conscious of the negative effects of greenhouse gases, the growing scarcity of fossil fuels, and the financial benefits of energy efficiency; office design has also started moving towards incorporating sustainability as a core principle.As well as benefitting the environment, energy efficiency and cutting waste benefits companies by saving significant amounts of money that would otherwise be wasted on fuel bills, stationery costs, and temporary “quick fixes” that don’t ultimately remedy inefficiency problems.

However, being environmentally friendly doesn’t necessarily come at the cost of quality, flexibility, or technology. One such example of a brand new, environmentally-sound office space is that of software giant Autodesk. As software suppliers to the artistic industries; designers, architects, the media, and entertainment; Autodesk need to practice what they preach. To do this, they required a highly innovative, technologically-advanced office space that encouraged flexible working, collaboration, mobile working and inspiration – all while remaining as green as possible. As a result, the high-quality design and fit out incorporated responsibly-sourced timber, energy-saving lighting, recycled furniture, printing and recycling facilities, and low-flow water-saving taps.

The flexible working spaces at Autodesk incorporate high-quality, responsibly sourced materials and energy-saving features, such as lighting and recycling facilities.


The workplace BYOD phenomenon, championed by technology security giants such as Symantec, is already becoming entrenched in many office environments. Bring your own device is exactly what its name suggests – the permission, and the flexibility, to bring your own technology to work: laptops, smartphones, tablets and the like. On one hand, it allows employees at any level some say in what technology they use, a degree of personalisation, a better work-life balance, and the increased workplace wellbeing and productivity that results from this. However, BYOD also puts stresses on IT departments to manage these devices, secure data, and contain any viruses or bugs that could cause issues.

BYOD perfectly encapsulates a major shift in workplace composition: every office is becoming far more diverse than ever before. Millennials need to be able to work alongside Generation X, and entry-level executives sometimes want to keep similarly flexible hours as CEOs. BYOD is another facet of flexibility that needs to be accommodated by companies – which means progressive office design and build needs to take this into account. The advent of a BYOD culture has depicted a significant shift in how companies see and value their employees. A real onus has been placed on modern workforces by their employers; and workers are in many cases being encouraged to experiment with new ways of working and collaborating with one another – using new tools and processes.

BYOD as a concept has facilitated the development of many other office advancements; many of which look set to become commonplace in the more forward-thinking organisations. These concepts include the incorporation of “Shadow IT,” or the use of IT systems and IT solutions built and used inside organizations without explicit organizational approval; as well as Choose Your Own Device (CYOD), where a business presents several pre-approved solutions for employees to choose their most suitable option.

ThoughtWorks’ mobile nature of working facilitates the use of employees’ own devices. A robust BYOD policy, and the space to work with their own personal tools, allows staff to be even more productive.


Wireless technology is hardly new. It seems like everything from, well, the wireless, through to the internet, microphones, and even mobile phone charging has been given the wireless treatment. This raises an important future possibility: the means for the office environment to go completely wireless.

Computer chip giant Intel is working on establishing three specifically wireless experiences to bolster the coupling of office design and productivity in the very near future. Wireless display connectivity is designed to cut down on the time wasted finding the right display adapters, as well as accommodate the growing number of different devices brought about by the BYOD movement. Wireless docking looks to enable mobile, agile workers; meaning those that hot desk or change their environments to suit their working patterns can simply dock their devices and be ready to work.

Combined with activity based working, and the kind of office designs and builds that accommodate this, these wireless experiences are all designed to improve user experience, increase productivity, and reduce office waste and clutter. Office spaces are slowly becoming more universal, regardless of type of device, hours, or working patterns. Completely wireless connectivity is the next step in flexible office spaces.

The activity-based working environment encourages collaboration, mobility, and hot-desking, as there are no allocated desks, just lockers. Allowing staff to work wirelessly opens up the possibility for constant innovation; forward-looking and forward-thinking; and the ability to practice what they preach. One highly progressive office space that’s designed and built entirely around cutting-edge technology belongs to global technology and business processing company Xchanging. As their strapline is “inspiring innovation,” they need to lead by example: both in their processes and the office space in which these processes are carried out.


Throughout the evolution of office design over the past 200 years, we have seen many design elements come, go, resurface and be repurposed. From the white-collar assembly line across the great factory floors of the Taylorist office, to the territorial-yet-trapping Cubicle Farm, the majority of office design has been an extension of the Capitalist business ethos: productivity, cost-efficiency and growth.

However, all of the forthcoming workplace wellbeing elements, when combined, shed light on just how much the employee has become the centre of the office design blueprint. Companies are realising that productivity begins with the producers, from the managers at the top to the trainees at the bottom.

The key to increasing their productivity isn’t about quick-fixes, shoving as many people into rows of cubicles as possible, or incorporating a virtually unworkable hot-desking setup in an out-of-town business retail warehouse. The way forward for businesses is to look after their employees; nurture their growth; encourage their skill development and then retain them. The evolution of office design began with the industrialist factory line Taylorist model, and has slowly but surely become something completely different. Decisions in relation to the layout and design of workplaces are no longer property-driven; but are more and more influenced by Human Resources and Facilities; with the key objectives being to retain and attract the best talent in the marketplace.

As detailed throughout this journey, the most important, basic elements of company success lie in employee cultivation – and that starts with the blueprints and evolution of the humble office space.